Spring 2015 Catalog

The small press publishing game is a very slow one. It’s easy to assume that last sentence is a complaint, but rather it’s insider knowledge of the challenges it takes to publish a good book.

msjWith multi-author anthologies, the biggest delays are obtaining rights, editing, and checking the changes against the authors’ permissions. Another time sink is the formatting, when one realizes the spacing between paragraphs and sentences is not uniform, or various word processors or fonts apply their own twist on the appearance of quotes and apostrophes. With electronic books, a relatively centered body of text is usually fine. But print has to account for the left-versus-right spaces between the pages themselves, lest words sink towards the spine.

I’ve been through the process enough to know.

Sorry, I’m digressing. But with good reason. I’ve been glancing over my bibliography and find it unfortunate that several of my tales have gone out of print with the closing of Cruentus Libri Press a year ago.

But between those stories and the expiration of publishing rights for The Black Winds Whispers, I now have a flash piece, three short stories and a novelette for republishing. Material enough to cobble together a low cost, personal anthology.

The central theme of this potential anthology is horror, but the sub-genres are more eclectic. I have a mystery and detective piece that takes place in London during the 70s. I have a World War I story between France and Germany, a psychological-medical tale, and the short, “The Child of Iron” which seemed a favorite amongst the beta readers. A fine mix of various forms of horror.

GuardiansWhile this is a very good start, I feel the need to provide a little more to make a satisfactory book. I’ve been glancing through my old drafts for any works I could dust off and improve. There is a World War II horror tale that certainly has promise.

I also realized that the rights to Welcome to Hell have ended. Which means that my horror western “The Rusted Star” can now be used. That makes for six pieces. I think that’s a solid measure.

There are also quite a few dark fantasy pieces (including one with Cthulu mythos in the Indus Valley civilization), but I feel that fantasy would be a theme-breaker for this anthology. Everything else is either current or historical, so I’d rather reserve those fantasy works for something else. I’ll see what I can find.

I’ve already contacted Manuel about a book cover and plan to take some time to review the old work throughout next month.

Because the majority of the manuscripts are finished and have been edited once, I think it’s reasonable I can have the entire thing complete and available by Halloween of this year. In the mean time, my faithful readers, here are a few other titles to check out.

“Favours the Prepared” from the Fox Pocket: Guardians.

To the outside world, Marissa is a reclusive shut in, remaining in her apartment and never showing her face. In truth, she is awaiting visitors.

The Good Fight“Sins and Dust” from Mad Scientist Journal: Winter 2015.

A historical-horror tale of genuine mad science that takes place during the Dust Bowl storms of the 30s. A gut wrenching look into the emotional toll of the Great Depression, and the desperate lengths we would go to for our loved ones.

“The Beast in the Beauty” from The Good Fight.

Coming soon from Emby Press is our (yes, our!) biggest and best tale yet. Sara is a high school student with a bright future. But her graduation plans are dashed when she discovers that someone she knows has broken into her school and violently slain several people. But the truth changes the course of her life forever… and launches her into a war behind the scenes, taking place in the same universe as Jonathan Ward’s “The Falcon” and A.R. Aston’s “For a Fistful of Diamonds” which both are in this anthology.

The Good Fight is the prologue to Outliers, a superhero epic quarterly series we’re developing with a few other authors. So don’t miss it!

A Game of Code

So code development can be remarkably like working out.

When you do it, it’s easier to keep going. The practice becomes self-sustaining, enlightening and enjoyable, making you feel better and better about yourself. But just as with exercise, a halt in your efforts can endure. It’s harder and harder to open the IDE (think studio for developing) and get in a few lines of code.

I hate to admit that I was strangely reluctant to start coding this new project. I had discussed it with Manuel and Andrew for a while, and originally envisioned a collectible card game. Because my friends live in the UK, I suggested that doing a demo on Android could make it easier to play test.

But discussion about the m300px-Demomanarket slowly changed our direction. And although we’ve only added the prefix “digital” to the collectible card game title, ipso facto… we are developing a video game.

After agreeing to it, I began to feel reluctance. Coding is exhausting, a mental strenuous practice of researching API (application programming interfaces) possibilities, reading through how-to guides, trial-and-error approaches to problem solving. There can and certainly will be days you drill down the details and exhaust all possibilities on how to solve some issue, only to arrive at frustrating dead-ends because of inexperience.

Today, I finally cracked my inhibitions and began working. Just some easy User Interface (UI) designs, I admit, but not without a few challenges and making me recognize some of the tools and approaches I will be taking to develop the game. Handling the Java-derived functionality is usually easy. And thus far, the User Interface specifications are either in the scope of my experience or just outside of it and won’t take long to crack. However I have entertained the possibilities of moving beyond the “card game” demeanor and embracing… something classic.

Part of this desire was sparked by a recent sale I’ve been conducting on eBay. I am preparing to move to Arlington, Virginia in a week, so I thought to unburden myself of old items that I no longer need. Mundane things, like clothes and unneeded kitchen goods, found their way to the local GoodWill. But books and old Playstation games were placed on sale, some of which selling quite handsomely despite being nigh twenty years of age.

As I didn’t wish to sell damaged and useless goods to my customers, I went ahead and tested my games against my old PlayStation 1. The majority of titles on sale were from SquareSoft, before its merger to Enix. In those days, Square had exceedingly good programmers and designers, their titles enjoyable and fun, a mix of traditional with the new processing power the console offered them. Some say this approach ended with the release of Final Fantasy VIII, when the focus on art and graphics shifted attention from meaningful innovation of core game play.

Recent indie titles, such as The Banner Saga, Risk of Rain and the renovated ShadowRun series, have proven to me that not only is their a market for old-school gaming, but forgotten fun to be had. And yet these titles did not require warehouses of artists either.

Now to be fair, I am aware that there is a good chance this project may never be finished. A few years back, I looked at documentation for Steam Engine projects on their wiki projects page. Many of them had great ideas but didn’t get off the ground either due to lack of technical talent, time or interest. It’s hard to invest it something like this when one is not getting paid. (Not to be cynical, but being a starving artist carries the downside of actually starving.)

Now I will set aside time once a month to discuss this project. A lot of details keep getting shifted around although we have a core idea that we’re sticking with. But we’ll see what happens next.

Tough Times For Authors

A BBC article has reported that 5% of authors made 42% of income from published works in 2013. The number of authors who can make a living writing has dropped from 40% (back around 2003) to 11.5%. I strongly recommend you read the article yourself.

The news made me grimace a little. Something like this wasn’t entirely unexpected by any means. A first hand look at sales reports illustrates how difficult it is to earn much. But seeing one’s fears in the raw numbers does give me pause.

When someone encounters a disheartening situation, it pays to take a pragmatic glance at ones’ goals. My personal objective was to build my name enough that perhaps I can comfortably write full-time when I retire. As it stands, my retirement is no less than 30 years away, and a lot can happen in those three decades. This report proved that the market has changed, and is probably preparing itself for a kind of bubble in the next couple of years.

marchingtimeBubbles, at least in the context of markets, are never fun. Amazon’s e-publishing services are a blessing and a curse in this regard, for they opened the flood gates and removed barriers to entry. I can’t complain, because if Amazon hadn’t offered these services, our anthologies like Far Worlds and Marching Time would never have been published. And some of the publishing companies I’ve worked with might not exist either.

But as Amazon has removed our inhibitions, they’ve also gone on to inflame our passions. Although not the only company to do so, Amazon’s print-on-demand service CreateSpace is a proud contributor to National Novel Writing Month. In 2013, there were over 310,000 contributors to that and more than 42,000 winners. Even if as little as .5% of just the winners decided to push their work onto Amazon in the next year, it creates a deluge of new titles for sale. And that doesn’t include the other 268k non-winning contestants who could finish and submit later.

The pressure is not going to alleviate for a while. It will eventually. There are many of folks who will realize that they only ever had one story in them. Others just wanted to crank out a novel for the sensation of accomplishment. And still others may realize that being a full-time author was not quite what they hoped to be their calling.

In the end, the situation only serves to reinforce the same rule that being a writer is tough and persistence is the only way it can pay off. I guess it finally makes sense of that old phrase how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Daredevil and Such

MARVEL'S DAREDEVIL

Yes. I’ve joined them. The ranks of those peculiar tele-vegetarians…

I cut cable.

And I don’t mean I’ve taken Rob Lowe’s now off-the-air advice and gotten Direct TV. I mean my television is now provided by Netflix, Hulu and, to a lesser extent, Amazon Prime. I’m not saying it’s been a perfect transition. I find myself aching to catch the final season of Mad Men, paying to see the very last three episodes of The Americans and reconsidering my choice for when Halt and Catch Fire returns.

The only guys who really monopolize their material is HBO, and even that’s primarily because of Game of Thrones. True Detective might join that list of too-good-to-give-away TV, but its anthological nature can make each season independently hit or miss. It’s going to take some serious work for Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn to pull together something of the caliber of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.

I’m not saying they can’t, but nihilist Rust Cohle has some very big shoes to fill as a complex and deep character. I actually look more forward to True Detective than Game of Thrones, in that with the latter I’ll always have the books. The former? Well, there’s plenty of pulp detective fiction out there, but there’s still nothing quite like it.

Oh yes. And then there’s House of Cards season 3. I got delayed in finishing it by a few weeks, and part of me knew that something was strange when the internet wasn’t quite as abuzz about it. Without spoilers, the season just wasn’t as popping as the previous two. Maybe it was because Frank Underwood’s new position as the president put him on the defensive more, and limited the scope of what he can accomplish for himself. I was delighted that a certain character makes a return, and he adds dimension and intrigue of his own. But Frank seems to be missing his bite, and when he tries to reclaim it, circumstances go badly. The ending was somehow lackluster too. I’m sure things will improve next season but we will see.

daredevil-posterWhich brings us to the jewel of the day. Marvel’s Daredevil. Relax. I have no spoilers to give away as I’m only four episodes into it. While I’ve seen enough to raise some talking points, the 13 almost-hour installments are a lot to absorb all at once. And to my surprise (and delight), they were considerably more dark than anything I’ve seen Marvel try on the screen. But be forewarned: Someone once said that although the series is darker, it is still supposed to be family friendly.

Whoever said that lied.

Daredevil has moments of gore, a little cussing, and more strongly eludes to sex. If themes were best described in colors, then Batman: The Animated Series is black and light grey, and Dexter is red. Daredevil as a series tends to blend those colors, but also lacks Dexter Morgan’s deadpan narration to lighten the mood and Batman’s resources. In fact, Batman is an interesting comparison in that topically he and Daredevil sound similar (orphans, willingly choose to fight crime, secret identities) but in every detail the two heroes are so unrelated.

If there’s one truth about superheroes that Marvel has acknowledged very well, it’s that they are not going to always be on the same page in terms of power. A God of Thunder or a billionaire in a flying armored suit are going to handle a very different set of worldly problems. Daredevil, aka Matt Murdock, isn’t on their level. In combat, his powers are useful much more conditionally useful. Murdock struggles with street soldiers, and doesn’t always come out on top of his fights. However, Daredevil’s heightened senses make for greater story telling due to the application of his gifts for investigation. And that’s the true strength of Daredevil as a television series over yet another summer blockbuster.

I have to admire a few things about Daredevil as a character. Matt Murdock, curiously enough, is religious. Roman Catholic. It’s a strong trait of his that sets him apart from almost all the other characters in the Marvel universe. He doesn’t seem to go full The Boondock Saints on us, but it sets strong tones that make him unique. He’s also blind, which effects how people treat and react to him. And at least in the original comics, his disability was an interesting, pitying element that strongly influenced his relationships, particularly with his secretary Karen Paige.

There are two factors that bug me. Again, I’m only four episodes into the series, and I get that this is a kind of slow roast, fragmented origin story so there are still things Murdock is trying to figure out. Daredevil has a hard ass attitude to criminals, I understand. But there is truly a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to the risk he poses on their lives. In the comics, the Punisher eventually challenges his morality, and the results don’t paint a clear picture. Batman has rules, and these rules made for an incredible movie. I don’t know whether this is supposed to be a set detail for Daredevil, or if it’s an issue that Murdock is going wrestle with himself over. Scenes suggest that it is, but we’ll see.

The other problem I have is proportion. The directors could seriously cut 60 seconds of action and instead use that minute to let the emotions of some moments sink in a little bit, and the show would be perfect. Most of the series’ violence occurs via fistfights that take a while, and seem to go over some allotment of time of being interesting. It’s Marvel, so there is an expectation of pulpy violence. But a good fight on television should reveal something or change the story in some regard.

There’s quite a bit more I could discuss, particularly Vincent D’Onofrio’s incredible performance as the Kingpin. But I think it’s all something to return to later once I’ve finished the series.

A Chinese New Year Resolution?

2015_NewYear1

The above artwork is from Android Jones, an amazing artist whom you should look into. This particular piece is a reference to the year of the ram or goat, which began on February 19th of this year.

It’s on that note that, as of late, I’ve been thinking a great deal about why people make a new year’s resolution at the worst possible time of the year. I mean, I get the symbolism of choosing the restart of the calendar, but the practical timing of it makes it very difficult to maintain one’s personal integrity. On the east coast of the states, it gets cold and dark. And we tend to make these promises of working out and taking better care of ourselves when we’re the least likely to actually do these acts.

Winter, man. That’s when we’re encouraged to eat food that will stick to our ribs and stay inside. I suppose it wouldn’t be a bad time to make an intellectual or spiritual pursuit. But physically? It makes more sense to wait rather than to punish oneself. Why not wait until after the winter is over? I’ve started jogging again and it feels phenomenal.

I’ve also been indulging in some self-improvement. I’ve been brushing up on my tech skills and trying to catch up on my pop culture knowledge. Recently I’ve been trying to finish reading John Steakley’s most memorable novel, Armor. On the surface level, the description reads like a rehash of Starship Troopers. But once you dive in, it’s one third psychological horror and war, with two thirds space piracy meets The Catcher in the Rye. Yeah, you read that correctly. But weird as that sounds, it works. Very well. I’ll probably discuss this in detail tomorrow.

I’ve also been trying to watch some classic movies I haven’t seen before. Recently, it was The French Connection starring Gene Hackman and based on a non-fictional events involving detective Eddie Egan. I was surprised how well the crime movie holds up to modern standards despite being released in 1971. As it’s available for streaming off of Netflix, I highly recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it check it out.

Alternative Composers to Hans Zimmer

Once upon a time, I did interviews for the Bolthole. It was a little site primarily dedicated to Warhammer and 40k stories from the Black Library, and we interviewed many of the authors who did work in those franchises. Early on, one of the questions I tended to ask was simply, “Is there any music you prefer to listen to while writing?”

And unfortunately, the answer was rarely more creative than Hans Zimmer.

Zimmer is a terrific composer, no one can easily deny that. But his name is simply too easy to spurt out because it’s what other people say. And in doing so, authors looking for some great tunes might easily pass up the chance to find composers who produce music that better fits their genres and style.

But of course, not if they’re reading my blog…

Ramin Djawadi

“Why does that name sound a little familiar?” you maybe asking yourself. It’s understandable. I mean, once the credits are on the screen, we usually zone out. So you might have missed his name in the opening titles of HBO’s Game of Thrones or Pacific Rim. Ramin Djawadi is just one of those up and coming types who might someday replace Zimmer as the name most associated with great musical scores. His style is best described as bombastic with a hint of the kind of powerful overtures that sweep us into some grander, often national conflict.

Thomas Bergersen

Funny fact. Just because Hans Zimmer did all the music in a movie doesn’t mean he did all the music for said movie. Enter the amazing work of Thomas Bergersen, who did this tune for one of Interstellar’s trailers. The co-founder of the famous production company Two Steps from Hell, Bergersen has composed some of the most emotionally dramatic pieces you’ll probably ever listen to. For amazing tunes, check out his albums SkyWorld and Sun.

Adrian von Ziegler

Unlike Djawadi, there’s an excellent chance you haven’t heard of Swiss composer, Adrian von Ziegler. In fact, he’s unlike almost everyone else on this list. He hasn’t really been involved on any major movie, game or television scores. Instead, he has achieved famed through sheer, raw talent and use of Youtube which you can check out freely.

Jason Graves

One glance as Graves’ prominent works list on Wikipedia makes it clear that the man has basically been everywhere in the gaming world, with more than a couple of dozens titles under his belt. However, his most significant works are likely for EA’s Dead Space series and the recently rebooted Tomb Raider series. Horror lovers may find a kinship with his work.

Basil Poledouris

But not every composer worth checking out has to be current. Basil Poledouris is a name associated with several unforgettable films in the 80s, including the first two Conan the Barbarian films and the Robocop series. The 90s were not without mentions either, expressing a diverse range of genre matching with Starship Troopers, Hot Shots: Part Deux and Free Willy.

Ennio Morricone

If you know what spaghetti westerns are, then you know who Ennio Morricone is. Made famous alongside movie western star Clint Eastwood, Morricone’s most unforgettable work can be found in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, in the piece “The Ecstasy of Gold.” His work is so powerful, it has been reused very often in other great films, including five by Quentin Tarantino.

Kenji Kawai

Chances are that only anime lovers would know the unusual and mysterious work of Kenji Kawai. But there’s a haunting, unforgettable element to his style that transcends any cultural barriers or genres. His best works may be in the form of the first two Patlabor movies as well as the Ghost in the Shell titles.

Yoko Kanno

Now while Kenji Kawai maybe known only to anime lovers, there’s a better chance that more people have heard the fantastic pieces of Yoko Kanno. This woman has no limits, and is capable of blending  blues, jazz and pop into an unbelievable and infectious fusion. Notable works include Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Macross Plus. But best of all the soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop, which is so critical acclaimed, even people who normally turn up their noses to anime may own it.

Chappie Review

Chappie2Yesterday, I was treated to an advanced showing of Neill Blomkamp’s latest movie, Chappie. The March 6th release of the film seems intended to reproduce the success of other pre-summer blockbusters, such as 300 and Iron Man. As of late, I have begun to wonder if the entire concept of the summer blockbuster as a seasonal occurrence can be challenged, especially given American Sniper‘s outstanding financial performance. But that is a question to be answered this weekend.

Part Robocop and part Short Circuit, Chappie takes place in the South African city of Johannesburg, where crime, civil unrest and easy access to assault weaponry have made it tough for the human police force. But Tetra Vaal, a robotics company, has reversed the situation with the Scouts; man-sized droids with titanium shells to shrug off gunfire, and well written rudimentary behavior for handling violent criminal offenders.

This review will cover the early plot hooks of Chappie but otherwise avoid spoilers.

The Opening Act

During the opening act, the Scouts are called into action against a fleeing gang run by Ninja and Yolandi (Watkin Tudor Jones and Yolandi Visser of the rap-rave group Die Antwoord) and their buddy Yankie/Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo). Ninja’s gang meets up with local crime warlord Hippo (Brandon Auret) for a drug drop-off, but an earlier encounter with the police destroyed the goods. Because of Ninja’s failure, Hippo threatens his life unless Ninja delivers 20 million South African Rands in 7 days.

Just then the Scouts arrive with human police back up. Ninja, Yolandi and Amerika escape during the ensuing firefight, but receive a call from Hippo as they return to their hideout, who ensures them that his threats are still valid. Yolandi floats the idea of kidnapping Tetra Vaal’s lead developer, and forcing him to shutdown the Scouts in preparation for a heist to pay off Hippo, and save their lives.

At Tetra Vaal, that lead developer is Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who is celebrated for the huge success of the robotic police units. But Deon’s success came at cost to Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), whose mentally-controlled walking tank “The Moose” has seen its yearly budget slashed repeatedly by their boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), and has yet to win the interest of the Johannesburg police.

But Deon has a greater vision for his creations. And after nine years of development, he has finally created what he believes is a true artificial intelligence software package. Against Michelle’s rejections due to insurance risks, Deon steals both the guardian chip and the ruined pieces of Scout 22 (voiced by Sharlto Copley) despite warnings that damage had sealed 22’s battery to his chassis, preventing replacement. The guardian chip is needed to install updates to the Scouts, and its disappearance is discovered by Vincent.

On Deon’s way home however, Ninja’s gang kidnap him. Ninja is infuriated that the Scouts cannot be shut down. However, Amerika discovers the remains of Scout 22. The gang changes tact, wanting Deon to reprogram the damaged droid for use during their heist. Deon, seeing this as his best and perhaps only chance to try his program, installs the A.I. package, turning Scout 22 into the scared, nubile robot whom Yolandi christens Chappie…

Chappie1

The Talking Points

It was fun to see how Blomkamp and screenwriter Terri Tatchell thwarted half of my previous theories about the direction Chappie would take. Although it began quite predictably, it didn’t take too long for it to get off the beaten path and venture into more interesting territory. Chappie’s adoption into Ninja’s gang (a major portion of the movie) reminds me of a scene from Short Circuit 2 when Johnny 5 is initiated into a carjacking gang after stealing an entire car parked street’s worth of stereos.

Chappie tries and succeeds at stealing our hearts. He is fun to watch and equally as touching, hanging onto Ninja, Amerika and Yolandi’s every word and doing as he’s told with childish enthusiasm. Yolandi provides the maternal care for Chappie’s well being and although she is aware of the need to commit the heist, she worries for the safety of her shy child. Yolandi’s kind words keep Chappie from ever going into the “I’m different in a bad way” depressive streak that Johnny 5 did, which allows more focus on Chappie’s efforts to really fit in.

But while Yolandi acts as a mother figure, Ninja and Deon become his father and creator respectively and provide contrasting philosophies. Ninja, being the hard born gangster type, tries to instill the street scarred alpha male mentality to keep Chappie alive.

Chappie3Deon however, is more concerned about the long term spiritual impact this will have upon his creation. This proves challenging, as Deon is cast in a role comparable to God, and becomes the target of Chappie’s questions and existential frustrations when he discovers that his battery’s limited lifespan foretells a mortal’s death.

Hundreds, if not thousands of technical details make Chappie come to life on the screen, from the shapes his pixel eyes take, to his voice, to the subtleties of his body language. Many of these elements would be lost on the reduced television budget, and without these tiny wonders, Chappie would not have the heart it does.

But Chappie as a movie is perhaps too ambitious, which prompts mixed feelings. The plot seemed too large for a movie and left several plot wrinkles and holes. Modern films face stiff competition from the story-telling of television, which command bigger and better plots and more time to build genuine transitions of any given situation. This showed in a scene where Hippo decides to start trouble, and the city instantly goes into a full-scale riot.

Another point of disappointment has to be the character Vincent Moore. Despite Hugh Jackman’s impressive acting abilities, Deon’s villainous rival seemed little more than a half baked right-wing caricature. In one scene, the former soldier insists on the superiority of human moral judgment before making extremely violent threats in the workplace against a coworker with a pistol. Then he tries to pass it off as a joke and extends an invitation to attend church, as if the jest’s poor taste and lack of workplace disciplining wasn’t enough. While Vincent’s resentment of Deon’s success was founded early, there never seems to be any further character development than that. Jackman’s character never has a chance to really be understood by the audience.

The ED-209 or TX-55 inspired Moose, Vincent’s creation, also doesn’t strike me as well thought out. The walking tank was too large to enter regular buildings. Its weaponry, which included cluster bombs and a pair of disemboweling scissors, strike me as egregious human rights violations, even when police would be authorized to use lethal force. While the situation is tough on the streets of this fictional Johannesburg, I doubt that a real company would have wasted funds building a prototype for the police with such excessive firepower. Much less allowing it passed the business proposal stage.

The Verdict

Chappie4Despite its faults, Chappie is more good than bad. It carries a solid mix of heart, thought and potential that generally overcomes weaknesses in the plot and some under developed characters.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if these problems will continue to be a growing issue with Blomkamp’s future work. District 9 is inevitably the one piece of science fiction to which all his titles has and will be compared, chiefly because of how it twisted an otherwise contentious political issue into something interesting and emotionally invested.

Between District 9, Elysium and now Chappie there seems to be a general decline in the quality of Blomkamp’s efforts. I certainly hope Chappie is the lowest point in Blomkamp’s expanding filmography.

Catch Chappie in theaters this Friday.